That is All I Have Left to Say*

Dying WordsNot every fictional victim gets the chance for last words. But it’s interesting to see how many crime novels include dying words. It’s tricky to handle dying words effectively. For one thing, a lot depends on how the fictional victim dies. In many cases, it wouldn’t be possible for a victim to say anything. And there’s the matter of melodrama. That said though, dying words can be very interesting; and sometimes, they’re important clues to the killer.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Helen Stoner. She feels that her life may be in danger, and she wants Holmes’ help. It seems that Helen’s sister Julia suddenly died after a strange series of eerie noises and unexplained events. On the night of Julia’s death, Helen heard her sister scream. She rushed from her bedroom into the corridor and saw her sister there. Julia was only able to say,
 

‘‘Oh my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!’’
 

before she died. Helen could make little sense of the words, but now, she’s hearing the same strange noises that preceded Julia’s death. Holmes and Watson travel to Stoke Moran, the estate where Helen lives, and investigate to find out who would want both women dead and why. I know, I know, fans of The Boscombe Valley Mystery.

In Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life, Queen is invited for a getaway weekend at a guest house belonging to wealthy playboy John Levering Benedict III. Also staying (but in the main house) for the weekend are Levering’s three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary. As you can guess, the atmosphere at the house is tense, so Queen spends most of his time at the guest house. One night, Queen gets a frantic call from his host, who says that he’s been murdered. He tries to say more, but because he stutters, it’s extremely difficult for him to get anything out. And at least at first, Queen can’t make sense of what he does say. In any case, he rushes over to the main house. But by then, it’s too late: Benedict has been killed by a blow to the head. The only physical clues are a wig, an evening gown and a pair of gloves. It turns out that Benedict knew all along who killed him; had Queen understood what he was saying, the case would have been solved before it began. But of course, that wouldn’t make for riveting reading…

Agatha Christie used dying words in more than one of her stories. For instance, in The Boomerang Clue (AKA Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?), Bobby Jones is golfing with his friend, Dr. Thomas. At one point, they’re looking for a ball that went over a cliff when they see a man who’s fallen off the cliff and landed below. Jones goes to stay with the man as Thomas rushes off to get help. So Jones is alone when the victim says,
 

‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’
 

and then dies. The words seem meaningless at first, but as Jones and his friend, Lady Frances ‘Frankie’ Derwent ask some questions, it becomes clear that the man was murdered, and that he’s the key to something much bigger than they’d thought. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow.

Henning Mankell’s first Kurt Wallender novel, Faceless Killers, begins with brutal attacks on a rural farmer, Johannes Lövgren, and his wife, Maria. Johannes dies before any help can arrive, but Maria lives long enough to be transported to emergency care at the nearest hospital. She, too, later dies, but not before uttering the word,
 

‘Foreign.’
 

That one word means serious trouble for Wallander and his police team. There is already simmering resentment against immigrants in the area. If it gets out (which it does) that these murders were likely committed by foreigners, there’s no telling what might happen. And when the media hears about it, the police have to deal with a real backlash – including the murder of a Somali immigrant who was living at a nearby camp. Now the police have to fend off the media, solve the murder of the immigrant quickly (so as not to appear prejudiced) and continue to work on the Lövgren case.

And then there’s Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Seaton is an undermaster at the local grammar school in 17th Century Banff, in Scotland. One morning he wakes to the news that there’s a dead body in his classroom. He finds that the dead man is apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson, and that Davidson has been poisoned. The most likely suspect is his romantic rival, music master Charles Thom, who is duly arrested. Thom claims that he’s innocent, and begs Seaton to help clear his name and get him out of prison. Seaton agrees and begins asking questions. He saw Davidson alive, not long before his death, and now that vision comes back to haunt him. Davidson had tried to get his attention, but Seaton didn’t respond. Now he discovers that two other people did respond: local prostitutes Mary and Janet Dawson saw Davidson and tried to help him. Neither they nor Seaton can make sense of Davidson’s dying words, at least at first. But as we find out, those words have a lot of significance.

And that’s the thing. Dying words often do have a significance, both in real life and in crime fiction. It’s just that sometimes, it’s harder to work out what the meaning is than it is other times. Which fictional dying words have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s version of Muddy Waters’ Blow Wind Blow. 

32 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Henning Mankell, Shona MacLean

32 responses to “That is All I Have Left to Say*

  1. What a classic one that is, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? I’m struggling to think of a good example other than those you mention above, although I am sure that crime fiction is littered with them.

  2. Dying message clues really are a lot of fun. I tried one myself in Eve of Destruction. Ellery Queen was a real specialist in this trope, but I tend to think that Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is the cleverest of all, because of the cleverness of the answer to the question.

  3. Like MarinaSofia, I can’t add to your examples though I’m sure I must have read many croaked final words over the years. I do like The Boscombe Valley Mystery one though, and I love the idea of The Speckled Band – though one feels the mystery could have been solved more easily had she been a little less cryptic! 😉

    • True, it could have, FictionFan. But where would the fun be in that??? 😉 Seriously, though, I’ve always like that story and Boscombe Valley…. Both make really good use of this strategy I think.

  4. Margot: I just finished Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. Sleuth Flavia de Luce hears the victim in the cucumbers say “Vale” (Farewell) and die. The word goes back to an event 30 years earlier.

    • You’re absolutely right, Bill. And that’s a great example of the way those last words can give clues to a case at the same time as they add to its mystery. Thanks for reminding me of that. And I hope you’ll post a review of …Sweetness…. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  5. Well, Ellery Queen was definitely the master of the dying verbal clue! In the case of LAST WOMAN IN HIS LIFE (which I think time has not been kind to), you can imagine the fun I had when reading it in Italian – not the same, at all … 🙂

  6. Kathy D.

    These are such good last lines of the murder victims. I’m glad I remembered The Adventures of the Speckled Band. It made an impression on me in my teenage years. I wish I remembered some, but it can make for a gripping read if a dying person says something that leads the detective on the search for the perpetrator.
    It’s great in movies when someone is kneeling to hear a dying person’s last words and then tries to figure them out.

    • Oh, that does make for a powerful film scene, doesn’t it, Kathy? And I >The Speckled Band has a terrific example of that sort of clue, too, so I’m glad you mentioned it.

  7. Margot, I liked the last words in an Ed McBain short story I read recently. It goes like this:

    “He shouldn’t have died on me,” Stevie answered.
    “You shouldn’t have stabbed him,” the cop said.

    Those two lines convey so much about the plot, that is if anyone were to read the story back to front.

  8. One of the classics using the “dying words” clue, Margot, is John Dickson Carr’s classic The Three Coffins, known in the U.K. as The Hollow Man. The victim – who has been shot in a sealed room from which the killer somehow has escaped – manages to speak a few words at the end and makes an effort to say what happened. Naturally, the words are garbled, and different listeners have different ideas about what has been said, but – when properly interpreted – the dying words do explain a major part of the truth. I would add that this is, in my opinion, one of the best “impossible crime” mysteries ever written – and the dying words clue is a major part of it.

    • Oh, absolutely, Les! The Three Coffins/The Hollow Man is an absolute classic both of ‘impossible mystery’ and of dying words. Of course, Carr knew what he was doing…

  9. Col

    I can’t actually recall anything I’ve read where it’s an important plot point. Off to sit in a darkened room for a think…

  10. As Sergio said, Ellery Queen was obsessed with the last words clue, but not all of them are classics. Face To Face has an example of the most ridiculous variety – how anyone deciphers it is beyond me…

  11. Great post, Margot. There is also the Miss Marple story, ‘Sanctuary,’ isn’t there. Wouldn’t mind having a go at a ‘dying words’ puzzle myself!

    • Oh, that’s a great one, Christine! thank you for the very helpful reminder! I’d love to see what you’d come up with as your ‘dying words’ puzzle. 🙂

  12. I love a dying words clue – I’m sure it rarely happens in real life, but it’s the perfect starting point in fiction. I think I’m going to have to read the Ellery Queen book, even if you and Sergio agree it’s not worn well. And glad you mentioned The Hollow – it’s not so much a clue in that case, but the psychological explanation for the name he utters is very satisfying I think.

    • Oh, I think so, too, Moira! And I also like the way Poirot has to determine just what that significance is. As to the Queen, it is interesting on an intellectual-puzzle level, so on that score, might be worth a read. The rest….not so well. And I’m with you: a dying-words clue can really be a terrific starting point in fiction. It really can add to the puzzle and focus the whole story.

  13. It’s not exactly dying words – but then again they might be! – but I recall the final sentence from Lord Edgware, truly a classic closing line.
    It also occurs to me a variant – the proverbial words scrawled by the victim, usually on a mirror, sometimes on the floor. An example is Message from Marise by Paul Kruger.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Bryan. Those last words of Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies are classic, aren’t they? So well chosen. And you’re right; there are lots of cases where the victim scrawls a note. Sometimes it’s an important clue; sometimes it’s a ‘red herring’ – or something else. But those notes can add to a story, no doubt about it.

  14. Great post, Margot, that brought back a lot of great memories of dying messages that I love! (Oh, I do love The Hollow!) I tried to write a Queen pastiche once, and the challenges of incorporating a dying message were brought home immediately: the message must obfuscate before it can explicate! And that brings the illogic of the clue right to the fore! First, the clue has to refer to everyone, and THEN the true meaning has to be discovered and put all false meanings to shame. That’s why the solution in Last Woman ultimately seems so far-fetched, but I remember being mesmerized by Ellery’s explanation the first time I read it. Oh, I just remembered another example, one I just read thanks to Curt and his humdrums: Wade’s The Dying Alderman. The message is explained at the very, very end, and I confess that, although I guessed who the killer was, I didn’t tie the message to that person.

    • Thanks for the kind words. I don’t know that I’d have what it takes to do a Holmes pastiche, B.K. I give you credit for doing it. You’re right that dying clues can be very tricky, too. The have to be timed properly, have to obfuscate, and have to be done logically. And that’s true of other clues, too, really. It takes thought and planning to do it right.

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